Pawtucket Times

Why do new movies look so bad?

- Alyssa Rosenberg

“Black Panther: Wakanda Forever” arrived in theaters on Thursday burdened with impossible expectatio­ns. How could director Ryan Coogler replace his main character, King T’Challa, mourn the real-world star who played him and find the sort of political allegory that propelled “Black Panther” to a Best Picture nomination and a $1.3 billion box office haul?

The answer: He can’t. But that’s not the most disappoint­ing thing about “Wakanda Forever.” It’s that the film is so often ugly. This is depressing, but not surprising, given how many contempora­ry blockbuste­r movies are visually indifferen­t or unconvinci­ng.

As a practical matter, turning out movies that look worse in a theater than they might on a TV screen is a real problem for an industry that desperatel­y needs box office revenue to survive. And as a cultural matter, it’s a shame that so many of the last remaining mass experience­s are so underwhelm­ing and unattracti­ve. Audiences deserve better than this, even if they aren’t demanding it.

That said, “Wakanda Forever” has moments of real beauty.

Unfortunat­ely, the care for craft and clarity of vision obvious in the movie’s best moments only highlight the deficienci­es in its worst. Too many of the movie’s fight scenes take place at night and are choppy to the point of indistinct­ness, giving the impression that the filmmakers don’t trust that the sequences will stand up to sustained scrutiny.

Worst of all, the movie introduces what’s supposed to be the awe-inspiring underwater kingdom of Talokan with visuals so muddy that they undercut what is meant to be an epic clash of civilizati­ons. There’s a difference between presenting images that are realistic and those that are believable. Viewers know Talokan is underwater: they don’t need to see it as if through the actual distortion­s of the ocean.

The mediocre look of so many action blockbuste­rs has as much to do with larger forces in the entertainm­ent industry as it does with directoria­l failure.

Most recently, the covid-19 pandemic shutdowns produced a huge backlog of special-effects work that companies are rushing to complete, and that movie studios are impatient for them to complete.

These bottleneck­s have already delayed movies, including “Black Adam,” the DC Comics super-anti-hero movie starring Dwayne Johnson, which came out in October instead of July. While the effects in that film were certainly finished, it would be an uphill fight to argue that they were good.

Then, there’s the sheer amount of special-effects work that’s required for any given movie. For a major action sequence, such as the one in the climax to the 2019 superhero team-up “Avengers: Endgame,” visual effects artists insert entire characters in every frame, build digital backdrops and make sure everything stays consistent and comprehens­ible from one moment to the next.

Given that big movie franchises often plan their release schedules years out, special-effects companies are working to rigid deadlines and turning around major elements of their work on exceptiona­lly tight time frames. Multiple companies might work on a single scene, creating significan­t coordinati­on challenges: The credits for “Wakanda Forever” list employees from 11 different special-effects companies.

And there are additional quirks introduced by the dominant role a few movie studios play in the blockbuste­r market. In July, Vulture published an account from an anonymous visual effects artist about the specific challenges of working with Marvel.

The employee suggested that lowball bids from companies eager to secure Marvel contracts mean slimmeddow­n teams and extensive overtime. Marvel’s penchant for hiring acclaimed indie directors who aren’t accustomed to working with computer-generated elements means that effects artists have to do more work up front to help directors realize their visions. The result is that some of the most lucrative movies in the world are produced under highly strained conditions.

Taste and care can be corrective­s to this general tendency. Denis Villeneuve’s sci-fi epic “Dune: Part One” has plenty of sandworms, spaceships and personal combat shields, but the effects are all in service of Villeneuve’s austere, beautiful vision of a colonized desert planet and the intergalac­tic elites who rule it.

So do vision and obsession. James Cameron’s “Avatar: The Way of Water,” which is due in theaters in December, is likely to be a visual corrective. That’s in part because Cameron has a track record that makes executives comfortabl­e letting him spend years and a reported $1 billion to make four sequels to his 2009 smash hit, a process that included developing new technology for underwater filming.

However dependent the movie business has become on blockbuste­rs for the financial support that allows it to make, well, everything else, Hollywood can’t rely on Cameron alone. Genius isn’t a business model. But neither is letting everyone else coast on the memory of whatever a filmmaker such as Cameron or a daredevil actor such as Tom Cruise did most recently to make a big-screen theatrical experience seem worth it.

Movie executives can’t just talk about why going to a theater is important. They have to act like it. That means giving directors time, training and resources to produce truly awe-inspiring spectacles. And a company such as Marvel should confront its role in dragging the movies toward their present drabness. Superhero stories are supposed to be about the best in us. But choosing mediocrity is its own kind of villainy.

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